Perspectives in Education- Part 18: A Primer on Teacher Pay

Nowhere is there greater disagreement between conservatives and liberals than on the subject of teacher pay. To the liberal, teachers are not paid enough while to the conservative, teachers are paid too highly given the output. There is a certain grain of truth to both arguments, but the bulk of evidence leans towards the conservative arguments. To begin with, according to the United States Census Bureau, median household income in the United States averages $52,453 annually, but is generally based on 1.5 workers per household. The average single teacher salary in the United States is $52,408 annually. Thus, it takes 1.5 wage earners per household to earn what a single teacher makes in a year. Naturally, there are geographical differences in teacher average salaries that largely reflect the average salaries of the overall workforce in that region. However, by and large, average teacher salaries exceed the state’s median household income in 30 of 51 states (DC included).

Since teachers, rightfully, consider themselves professionals, it is best to compare their salaries with those of other professionals. Most reliable studies correctly point out that, on average, teacher salaries are 10% greater than comparable professional salaries. In fact, a teacher’s starting salary exceeds that of most Ivy League educated “professionals” in non-technical fields like communications, business administration, and the like. Throw in the fact that the average professional worker actually works 25% more days in any year and the discrepancy widens even further. Whether professional or not, college educated or not, teacher average salary exceeds that of your “average worker.”

Another factor to be considered is the fact that in other professions, when a person is absent for whatever reason, there is no replacement for that person. There are two options: either the work of the absent person does not get done, or another employee picks up the slack. With teachers, every school district has a pool of substitute teachers from which to pull replacements. Hence, not only does the actual teacher get paid for their absence, but the school must now pay a replacement. On any given day during the school year, about 5.2% of all the country’s school teachers are absent. Compare that to the national average of 1.7% of the workforce absent in other professions and industries. My guess is that if teachers were somehow rewarded for perfect attendance other than the accumulation of excused absence days to be paid upon retirement, teacher absenteeism would magically decrease.

Yet another consideration is the very liberal and lucrative benefit packages afforded public school teachers. Your average teacher can expect to retire at age 55 (can the majority of the American workforce afford that luxury?) and receive 70% of their salary for the rest of their lives as a pension. That is over $36,000 per year in retirement. Of course, the later they retire the higher the pension which explains why so many teachers hang on for so long. One solution may be to cap that percentage and/or establish a mandatory retirement age for teachers. Naturally, the unions and the older teachers would say that the educational system would suffer by attrition of experienced teachers. That argument may hold true if academic performance could be linked to teacher tenure and longevity. With regards to health benefits, generally if you are a teacher with single-person coverage, you pay nothing into your basic health care benefits, although you can purchase additional coverage. Only 25% of the remainder of the American workforce pays nothing for basic single coverage. In fact, teacher benefits nationally average about 26% of their annual salary, or $13,628 annually. Compare this with the remainder of the US workforce whose benefits are worth 17% of their salary, or $8,917 annually. Thus we can say that true household income of a single-working teacher is $66,034 compared to $61,460 of all remaining households with 1.5 workers per household.

But, teachers will argue that they work an approximate 49 hour work week when all things are considered. In reality, that would not be a serious deviation from the average work week of your average professional in any other profession. However, the average school day is 6.5 hours spread over 5 days a week which translates into a 32.5 hour at-school work week. Granted, there are certain other professional occupations that may spend less time “at the office.” I have a friend who is a pharmaceutical rep who spends probably 15 hours a week “at the office” and makes six figures. The amount time spent at school is not necessarily a good indicator, as teachers are ready to admit. For example, they trot out the fact that they often do lesson plans, make up tests, grade papers, etc. at home. So, let’s just assume they spend two hours a day at home performing these work-related tasks five days a week. Taking the 32.5 hours at school, we can subtract out about 1.5 hours per day for their lunch period and their planning period which are often required by collective bargaining agreements. My experience has been that about 10% of all teachers actually use the planning period to actually “plan.” In fact, they use it as second lunch period or, more often, a b.s. session with other teachers. Regardless, we are now down to a 25 hour actually at the office actually working work week. Giving teachers the benefit of the doubt, we can add in their 10 hours per week at-home work-related activities. This brings them to a 35 hour realistic work week. But, teachers do not work year round and instead work, generally, 44 weeks. This gives them a 1540 hour work year compared to the 2080 hours of your average worker. To bring this down to a per-hour basis, the average hourly salary of a 2080-hour worker is $25.22 per hour. For a teacher it is $34.03 per hour, or 34.9% higher.

Using this comparative analysis, let us look at some states where teachers are allegedly “underpaid.” Mississippi is a good example, considered one of the “poorest” states in the country. Household income in that state averages $18.61 per hour; teachers $27 per hour, or 45% higher. South Dakota “boasts” the lowest average annual salary for teachers at $39,850. In fact, this figure is 17% below the median household income in that state. Yet, when viewed on a per hour basis, teachers in South Dakota make $26 per hour compared to the state average of $23.08 per hour. What about the affluent states? New York has the highest average teacher salaries at $72,708, or $47 per hour compared to the remainder of the New York working households at $27 per hour. And the richest state based on median household income- Maryland- shows the same trends: $42 per hour for teachers and $34 per hour for everyone else.

Most importantly, we need to look at the relationship between teacher pay and student achievement. Without getting into teacher union objections to standardized testing- the old fallback cop out- teacher pay does not affect these scores. Nationally, the fourth grade average of both the literacy and math sections of the NEAP is 230.7 and 273.2 at the 8th grade level. Nationally, the average rate of graduation is 73.7. If we are going to gauge college readiness, the average SAT score is 1644. If we look at those states whose average teacher salary is at least $65,000 per year, the fourth grade scores are 234 and 8th grade scores are 276, both above the national average, but certainly not to such a significant degree that we can say increased teacher pay equals academic success. Also, graduation rates are above the national average at about 76%. But, SAT scores average 1508. Maybe they put out more high school graduates who are less college ready than other states. There is a slight correspondence that as one decreases average teacher salaries, test scores also decrease. But, the trend is hardly severe enough to state there is a causal link. For example, at the $50-55,000 category for teacher salary, 4th grade scores are 232.4, but at the $60-65,000 annual salary level, they average less than that at 231.8. And ironically, the states whose average annual teacher salaries are less than $45,000, SAT scores are the highest at 1659 while average graduation rates are above the national average at 74.1%.

Naturally, compensation is what usually attracts a person to a given profession despite all the niceties about giving back to the community and other mushy, feel good rationales. Do starting salaries for teachers have an effect on academic achievement and performance? Here, the evidence is much stronger that the higher a teacher’s starting salary, the better the academic achievement and performance. For example, in states where starting teacher salary exceeds $40,000 per year, the 4th grade, 8th grade and graduation metrics are higher than the national average and higher than in states with lower starting salaries for teachers. Thus, there may be truth to the teacher union mantra that a higher starting salary may help attract qualified people to the teaching profession. However, that number seems to be around the $40,000 per year level and certainly nowhere near the goal of, for example, the NJEA which advocates for a $50,000 starting salary for all teachers. But even this line of thought is negated when one looks at individual states. For example, the starting salary for a teacher in Utah is about $33,000 a year- considerably below the $40,000 level. Yet, Utah teachers turn out students who exceed the national averages at the 4th and 8th grade level, have a higher graduation rate than the national average, and whose SAT average scores exceed 1600. If a Utah teacher can do it on an introductory salary of $33,000 per year, it begs the question why a New York teacher cannot do the same. Obviously, student demographics play an important role and there are not too many urban areas, in the traditional sense, when one compares Utah to New York state.

The concept of increasing pay for qualified teachers and for attracting people to the teaching profession is a conservative idea based on market principles as opposed to the liberal idea of one-size-fits-all. It makes perfect sense on the individual level. Suppose you have a college graduate with a degree in math deciding on a career choice. Do they accept the $65,000 a year job working for a Wall Street brokerage firm, or do they take the $40,000 a year job teaching 8th grade math? For many, this is no decision at all. Likewise, does the person with a degree in chemistry accept the $40,000 a year teaching high school chemistry, or $85,000 a year working at Dow Chemical? Again, the choice is obvious. The private market competes with the educational establishment for qualified people with the private market having a distinct and palpable financial advantage. This helps explain why both sides concede that we are falling behind our foreign counterparts in math and science. But, look at it from another angle. If you are a college graduate with a degree in English literature, do you accept the $40,000 teaching job or the $32,000 job at a local publishing house editing manuscripts? If you are a political science major, do you accept the $40,000 teaching job or the $28,500 political consultancy firm job. You will never hear anyone claiming we have a shortage of English or Social Studies teachers because the market the teacher unions have distorted steer people into and away from career choices.

And the reasons are obvious on both sides- for the teachers and for administrators. The pay scales negotiated during collective bargaining are easy to administer. If you have ease of administration, then half your battle with yearly budgetary concerns are alleviated or eliminated. For teachers, they are usually guaranteed an annual increase in salary no matter their performance assuming they have tenure (and most do). Compare this with private education where budgets are an annual nightmare and tuition has to be adjusted annually accordingly. However, they also have the trade off of being to able to jettison poor teachers and attracting more qualified teachers. They do not have to pay the art teacher the same as the science teacher. Hence, they can be more aggressive in recruiting people with a science degree to the profession of teaching science. Granted, public schools are attempting to do the same, but they are running into serious interference from teacher unions when it comes to both merit pay (paying teachers on a differential basis based on performance) or differential pay (paying teachers differently based upon need for those teachers). Generally, the arguments against these systems from the unions is that they upset teacher morale. If that was all they upset, then we are all the better for it. Not to denigrate the art teacher, but whether Johnny knows that “pi equals 3.14…” is a little more important in today’s world than Johnny getting in touch with his creative self. Johnny will have plenty of time for that when Johnny is making six figures. Then again, at the current rate and if the NEA had their way, Johnny would be making six figures teaching art.